THE LAST JUDGMENT: REVELATION 20:11-15
Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version of the Bible.
VERSES 20:11-15 INTRODUCTION
This is the most sobering passage in all of Scripture. The Apostles' Creed states: "From thence [the right hand of the Father] he shall come to judge the quick and the dead." This passage in Revelation is the Scriptural substantiation for that belief.
As is so often found in Revelation, there is a bit of mystery about the wording. The "one who was seated on it [the great white throne]" (Revelation 20:11) is not named, but the following Scriptures testify that this is Jesus himself: In Genesis 18:25, Abraham describes the Lord as "Judge of all the earth." However, Jesus states that "The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son." (John 5:22) He also states that the Father "has given him [the Son] authority to execute judgment..." (John 5:27) He further explains his submission to the Father in the act of judgment: "I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me." (John 5:30) Paul describes the role of Jesus as judge: "Because he [God] has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead." (Acts 17:31) Paul also describes Jesus as follows: "I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom..." (II Timothy 4:1) So, the one who sits on the throne of judgment is Jesus Christ.
The wording in verse 11 that "earth and heaven fled" could be taken literally to mean that the throne stands suspended in space and the people brought before it also stand suspended. It also could be a description of the fear of the inhabitants of earth and heaven who seek to flee from the judge but can find no place to hide. We are told in Revelation 21:1 that John saw a "new heaven and a new earth, "for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away." So, this statement in Revelation 20:11 that "earth and heaven fled from his face..." should be taken to mean that these entities indeed had left the scene to be replaced by a new heaven and earth. Thus, Jesus is preparing all creation for a complete renewal. It begins by removing heaven and earth from their place. (Incidentally, the English Standard Version uses "sky" in Revelation 20:11 instead of "heaven," but translates the same word as "heaven" in 21:1. I am not sure how accurate these interpretations are.) The dramatic effect of this clause is to create a sense of fear and awe. The huge white throne stands suspended in space and all creation flees from the one who is seated there. Can you imagine what it will be like to stand before that throne?
VERSE 20:12: THE DEAD STAND BEFORE THE THRONE
"And I saw the dead, great and small..." (20:12) (ESV) These are standing before the throne. Now we have perhaps a place of contention. First, who are the "dead"? We have had mention of the dead in verse 20:5: "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended." I have already discussed verses 20:4-6 in a previous post. At that time, I established that there is a set of four interrelated terms that are referred to in a sort of shorthand in this chapter. These terms are the first death and the second death as well as the first resurrection and the second resurrection. I also established the following definitions:
The FIRST DEATH is the physical death that all persons experience except those who are raptured.
The FIRST RESURRECTION is the resurrection of the righteous unto life. See John 5:29.
The SECOND RESURRECTION is the resurrection that is implied by verse 20:12 of Revelation. It is the "resurrection unto judgment" that Jesus speaks of in John 5:29.
The SECOND DEATH will be defined in the passage before us. It is to be thrown into the Lake of Fire (Revelation 20:14).
With these definitions in mind, we ask the question: will the righteous go through this judgment? It is possible, but it seems that this context would not support that idea. I must say that I have changed my mind on this issue. I have believed in the past that the "judgment seat of Christ" could be equivalent to this last judgment, which is often called "The Great White Throne Judgment." I based my thinking on verse 12, which depicts a detailed examination of each person's life. This verse, and even verse 15, does not rule out the presence of the righteous. However, the fact is that "the dead" are the people who are facing this judgment. Returning to John 5, to verse 24, Jesus says: "Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgement, but has passed from death into life." We must recognize that this judgment, The Great White Throne Judgment, or what could also be called The Last Judgment, is for the purpose of examining "the dead," those who do not have eternal life within them. They died a physical death and now have been raised so that body and soul may face the consequences of their lives--of their thoughts, their beliefs, and their actions.
VERSE 20:12: THE "BOOKS" ARE OPENED
The next movement in this drama is that "books were opened..." (verse 20:12b) I have heard people criticize the notion that God keeps books on us. But we cannot avoid the Biblical information that God does indeed keep a record regarding us. "And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done." There is more than simply this notion, as I shall discuss, but we need to pause and recognize that the human race will be subject to examination according to their deeds. The traditional Christian terminology is their "works." What does this notion tell us? First, it tells us that God is paying attention. A person who was sort of a Christian comedian made a video that I saw in seminary. It depicted various ideas that people have about God. One of those ideas he depicted was an old man in a rocking chair, nodding off to sleep. That is a God who has no idea what we are up to. There is another version of that idea. It is a God who really does not care. Are we promiscuous, thieving, profane, drunken, violent, bullying, selfish, arrogant, materialistic, lazy, willfully ignorant, or resentful? One could add numerous other sinful actions and attitudes. Many believe that it just does not matter. God will wink at all of it or pat us on the back and ignore what we have done. This is not the Biblical record. God keeps track. It is sobering thought.
But I think we can miss a positive side to this concept. The fact that God keeps track means that there will be justice. Lately, there have been a number of incidents in which persons have been killed and the big question is: will there be justice? The whole matter of justice encompasses more than punishing the perpetrator for his or her crime. It also acknowleges the victim or victims and the worth of that individual or those individuals. God will hold accountable the person who unjustly or cruely forecloses on a loan, evicts a poor family, never gives a deserving person a raise or a promotion, charges excessive amounts for prescription drugs or medical care, overtaxes persons or certain classes of persons, takes advantage of political position to cause misery to political opponents, makes it excessively hard to vote, racially profiles, uses military force for unjust ends, enslaves individuals, bullies classmates, abuses a spouse verbally or physically, sexually assaults another individual, commits perverted acts--on and on we could go. These things may be done in secret or they may be done by individuals who are in positions of power that prevent their being called to account at this time. But God will know and God will judge. I think especially of children and the sins that are perpetrated upon them. God sees and God will judge.
We should also note that some sins are committed against oneself and violates one's own dignity. Fornication may seem "victimless" in some cases, but at least one sin is listed as against one's own body, and that is fornication. See I Corinthians 6:12-20. Certainly other sins could be understood to violate God's intention for us. Whatever the case, God is aware and will not simply allow sin to pass by unnoticed.
But we also notice that "another book was opened." This other book is the "book of life." The "books" are the list of deeds of the human race. But this other book, which is not explained in any great detail, is a book that is not about sin, but about life.
A survey of passages in which are mentioned a book or list of recorded names gives us some concepts that deepen our understanding of this Book of Life or of a list of names that are recorded in heaven. In a conversation between Moses and God, the Lord reveals that sin results in having one's name blotted from such a list. (Exodus 32:32-33, same concept is in Psalm 69:27-28) In Revelation this concept seems to reflect a determinism, for those who worship the Beast are described as those whose names are not written in the Book of Life. However, this could be understood to mean that those people who are sinners and therefore have been blotted from the list are the ones who will naturally follow the Beast. (Revelation 13:7-8, 17:8) For the positive view that God records the names of those destined for life, see Isaiah 4:3. Jesus told his disciples that they could (and should) rejoice because their names are written in heaven. This possibly indicates that their following him has resulted in having their names recorded in heaven. (Luke 10:20) Paul listed some of his fellow ministers in his gospel mission and described them as being listed in the Book of Life. (Philippians 4:3) Hebrews contrasts the New Testament experience to that of the followers of Moses at Mount Sinai. Rather than a terrifying experience on the mountain, the New Covenant believers have come to Mount Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem and they have joined an assembly "who are enrolled in heaven." (Hebrews 12:22-24) Finally, we are assured that entry into the great city, the New Jerusalem, is reserved for those "who are written in the Lamb's book of life." (Revelation 21:27)
So, the Lamb's Book of Life is the final decisive evidence that leads to life in the New Heaven and New Earth. The Bible does not use this concept in detail in those passages that describe entry into salvation, but one can fill in the details. John 3:16 says "whoever believes in him (the son of God) should not perish but have eternal life." Thus, believing in the son results in being recorded in the Book of Life. John 1:12 says that "all who did receive him [the Word of God], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God." Those who received Jesus had their names written in the Book of Life. Romans 10:9 says that "if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved." Those who confess and believe Jesus is the Lord and that God raised him from the dead (having been crucified) are saved so that their names are recorded in the Book of Life. Ephesians 2:8 says "For by grace you have been saved through faith." As we have had faith, God has extended grace to us so that we are saved, not by our works but by grace through faith. That salvation includes enrollment in the Lamb's Book of Life.
However, those who have not been saved are not recorded in the Book of Life. On the day of judgment, their deeds will be examined. Many will have terrible deeds recorded there--blasphemy, murder, hate, and perversion. Obviously, we would not expect to find their names written in the Book of Life. However, some will indeed have their names written there, for their salvation came through faith in Jesus and the grace of God. Some may boast of great deeds of nobility and others of quiet deeds of devotion and care. However, these deeds will not be sufficient to save them, to result in their becoming the children of God. Therefore, when that other book is opened, the Book of Life, their names will not be found there. The deciding factor in every case, no matter how heinous or noble the deeds, will be salvation by grace through faith that results in having one's name written in the Lamb's Book of Life.
Verse 20:12 expands a bit on the examination of the books: "And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done." This appears to indicate that each person will be judged according to their deeds and that punishment, which includes the Lake of Fire, will be commensurate with those deeds. This appears to be a decision that is separate from the "binary" decision of whether a person is saved or lost. That decision and its outcome is not described until verse 20:15.
VERSES 20:13-14: THE SEA, DEATH, AND HADES
Verses 20:13-14 are a little mysterious. Three entities are said to give up their dead: the sea, Death, and Hades. I am grateful to the comments of H. B. Swete (269-270). The ancients especially feared burial at sea. This verse is a reassurance that the body and soul of a person who was lost at sea would be resurrected: it poses no problem for God. Death and Hades represent "two aspects of death, the physical fact and its spiritual consequences.... Here they appear as two voracious and insatiable monsters who have swallowed up all past generations, but are now forced to disgorge their prey." The purpose of this disgorgement is judgment. Swete notes that the word "each" is featured in this verse. ESV renders the latter part of the verse this way: "and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done." This little word, "each" is also found (thanks to Swete) in Matthew 16:27, Romans 2:6, 14:12, I Corinthians 3:13, II Corinthians 5:10, I Peter 1:17, Revelation 2:23. All of these throw the heavy weight of personal responsibility upon every person. At the same time these references all put the focus on the humanity of every individual.
"Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire." These entities have already given up their contents as they deposit every person within them before the Judge. Now their role in human affairs is done and they are heaved into the Lake of Fire to be destroyed.
"This is the second death, the lake of fire." Keep in mind that verses divisions were not present in the original manuscripts. So, we need to ask the question: Does this statement apply to Death and Hades or to those who were not found in the Book of Life--the material of verse 15? I think it possibly could apply to both.
VERSE 20:13 DEATH
We first need to ask the question: what does it mean that Death and Hades were cast into the Lake of Fire? What are they, and how can we imagine their being thrown into the Lake of Fire. I think it is helpful to begin with Swete's definition: these are "two aspects of death, the physical fact and its spiritual consequences." How is the physical fact of death manifested? First, would be the conclusion of the autopsy examination: "cause of death." How many ways can we die? I remember one of my elders in the faith saying: "We all die of something." We die of cyanide poisoning, carbon monoxide poisoning, high blood pressure leading to stroke or heart attack, cancer in all of its many forms, gunshot wound, knife wound, blunt-force trauma, being beat to death with fists, tromped on by soldiers or horses, starvation, drowning, tuberculosis, small pox, polio, syphilis, AIDS, dementia to the point of loss of respiratory nerve impulses, tetanus, peritonitis, and on and on and on. In one way or another, to one degree or another, all of these have a human dimension. That is, someone was exposed to small pox, someone was hit over the head, someone was not rescued in their starvation, someone was lax in their own body care, someone was neglectful in caring for another. So, Death, the physical fact of death, includes humans who cause death, sometimes their own. All those humans carry a degree of guilt that will be judged at the day of Judgment.
In addition to the guilt of those who have contributed to the death of humans, there is also the bare-faced fact of death. This reality--that we all will die someday--haunts us. We go to funerals and gather around one another to comfort one another, not only for the loss of the person who has just died, but also we need comfort as we face the Fact of Death square in the face. That hole in the ground, that casket perched above it--these remind us that we too will die someday. It makes us shudder--the Physical Fact of Death. But someday that Physical Fact of Death will be thrown into the Lake of Fire. It will be done for. It no longer can hover out in front of us. It will be judged unworthy of an eternal existence.
VERSE 20:13 HADES AND HEAVEN--THE INTERMEDIATE STATE
There are also the Spiritual Consequences of death. It means we go to Hades if we are not found worthy of heaven. The New Testament gives ample evidence of both destinies of the soul of the one who dies--Hades and heaven.
JESUS DESCRIBES HADES
Jesus described an Old Testament version of the afterlife in Luke 16:19-31. We call this story "The Rich Man and Lazarus." Jesus described two people whose lives were totally different. There was a rich man who was well clothed and well fed. And there was a poor man, Lazarus (not to be confused with the Lazarus who was the brother of Mary and Martha). Lazarus was said to be "laid at his gate," that is, the gate of the rich man. This seems to indicate that he was lame or paralyzed. He was covered with sores and did not have sufficient food. When he died he was "carried by the angels to Abraham's side." The rich man died and found himself in Hades, where he was in torment. He learned that he was separated by a chasm from Abraham and those who were receiving comfort with him. Jesus completes the story by saying that, even if someone rises from the dead, those who have rejected the Law and the Prophets will not believe.
PAUL DESCRIBES HEAVEN
In Paul's writings, we find brief hints that those who are saved will experience a blessed afterlife. In II Corinthians 5:1-10, Paul contrasts our "earthly tent," by which he means our body, to our "heavenly dwelling." (II Corinthians 5:2) He also describes two alternative modes of living: to be "at home in the body" or to be "away from the body and at home with the Lord." (II Corinthians 5:6 and 5:8) It is not clear to me whether the two paragraphs, II Corinthians 5:1-5 and 5:6-10 are describing precisely the same subjects. Verses 5:1-5 seem to be pointing to the resurrection, when we will be clothed by a "heavenly dwelling." The second paragraph seems to focus on our presence in heaven "at home with the Lord." (II Corinthians 5:8) This is sometimes called the "intermediate state," during which we have an afterlife in which we are present with the Lord and are conscious (not in "soul sleep"). However, our blessing is incomplete until we experience the resurrection. Nevertheless, our time "in heaven" is a blessed condition.
In another passage, Philippians 1:18b-26, Paul points again to his expectation to be in heaven with Jesus: "If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account." (Philippians 1:22-24) This great hero of the faith was torn between going to heaven and being with Jesus on the one hand or, on the other hand, staying in the midst of all his trials that he might bless his converts by his presence on earth! Again, he points to a conscious afterlife in heaven with the Lord.
HEAVEN IN REVELATION
In Revelation 6:9-11, John describes the "souls of those who had been slain" because of their testimony. In a peculiar expression, these souls are said to be "under the altar." Ladd, in his commentary on these verses, asserts that the "altar" refers to the altar of sacrifice that stood before the Hebrew tabernacle and, later, temple. Animal sacrifices were laid on that altar to be burned as an offering to God. So, the souls of Christian martyrs (and Old Testament martyrs were probably also included) are "under" the altar, for their souls had been poured out as an offering to God, just as the blood of sacrificial animals was poured out at the base of the altar. These souls cry out to God to avenge their blood that has been spilled, and they ask "how long" will it be before that vengeance takes place. (Ladd, 102-104) "Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer..." (Revelation 6:11a) Thus, these "souls" are conscious and in communication with the Lord. I believe this is a brief picture of the intermediate state as it applies to these martyrs.
TWO INTERMEDIATE STATES
So, we see two different "intermediate states." The unrighteous dead go to Hades and are in torment (Luke 16:22-23) The righteous dead are in a place we commonly call heaven. (II Corinthians 5:1-10, Philippians 1:18b-26, Revelation 6:9-11) It includes a conscious afterlife of comfort in the presence of the Lord. With little elaboration, these scriptures indicate that these intermediate conditions are experienced by our immaterial selves--our souls. This "intermediate state" is a condition experienced between physical death and resurrection. The resurrection reunites the soul and body. Just as there are two intermediate states--that which is experienced by the unrighteous dead in Hades and the experience of the righteous dead in heaven--so there are two resurrections, one for the righteous and the other for the unrighteous.
At a future time there will be a resurrection of the body of the righteous dead. This is taught especially in two passages. In I Corinthians 15, Paul dwells on the fact of the resurrection of the body (I Corinthians 15:1-34), the glory of the new body we receive in the resurrection I Corinthians 15:35-49), and the two-fold victory of the resurrection of the dead along with the rapture of the living Christians (I Corinthians 15:50-57), and a brief application (I Corinthians 15:58) In another passage, I Thessalonians 4:13-18, Paul briefly describes the dynamic connection between the coming of Christ and the resurrection/rapture. This passage comforts those who have lost loved ones by assuring them that those who have died will be resurrected and meet Christ in the air as he descends to earth. The living Christians will be raptured and join the resurrected ones as all come to the earth so that they may always be with the Lord.
VERSES 20:15 THE RESURRECTION OF JUDGMENT
The resurrection of the unrighteous dead is not elaborated upon. In fact it is only implied in Revelation 20, which is one of the few places where it receives any attention. The other place of note is in John 5:28-29: [the words of Jesus] "Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment." Revelation 20:11-15 describes "a great white throne" and the dead, great and small, standing before the throne..." This brief description seems to imply that these "dead" have experienced what Jesus called "the resurrection of judgment." These verses are in the same context as Revelation 20:5-6: "The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power..." If the reader is confused, it may be worthwhile to review my definitions of first death, second death and first resurrection, second resurrection. These are found earlier in this post.
VERSE 20:15 THE SECOND DEATH
Finally, we come to the end of the matter: the second death. The trial is over and the Judge reveals the sentence. The trial has consisted of examining the "books"--the list of deeds of the person and referring to another book, the Book of Life. If a person has been saved by grace through faith, he is listed in the Book of Life. If his or her name is not listed there, then the sentence is announced and is immediately carried out: the person is thrown into the Lake of Fire. This is the second death. This person was resurrected long enough for him or her to be thrown into the Lake of Fire. This is the completion of the Last Judgment. At this point Christ has completed his assignment. He has done all that the Father has asked him to do. Death is in the Lake of Fire and all who have not put their trust in him but have chosen to be against him have been destroyed. "Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death." (I Corinthians 15:24-26)
Crossway. The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Il: Crossway, a division of Good News Publishers, 2001.
Ladd, George Eldon. A Commentary on the Revelation of John. Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1972.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Apocalypse of St. John. London: MacMillan and Co. Ltd., 1906.